Classroom Stars

Therapy Dogs are a Great Educational Tool and Becoming Increasingly Popular in Primary Schools

Primary school child with a therapy dog
Therapy dogs can be incredibly beneficial in primary schools and educational settings. From calming stressed pupils to teaching empathy and responsibility, school dogs are an increasingly popular tool for helping children learn and develop.

The presence of therapy dogs in primary schools has become more common in recent years. These canines play a crucial role in providing emotional support to pupils with learning disabilities or behavioural challenges. They can also contribute to a sense of calmness and positivity in the classroom, improving teaching and learning. So, what is the background of therapy dogs? What breeds of dogs are employed as therapy dogs? And how can they benefit primary school children’s learning and development?

St. Bernards were first utilised as therapy dogs during World War I when the Red Cross needed assistance rescuing wounded troops from the front lines. To soothe those in need, therapy dogs began appearing in public locations, including hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric units and schools, in the late 1950s. Due to their size and power, only larger dog breeds were initially acknowledged as therapy dogs. Still, with time, the professionals in this field came to understand that smaller breeds might also make good candidates for this type of work. In the UK nowadays, therapy dogs of all breeds and sizes are permitted for training and certification since they must first pass stringent tests to be certified.

Breeds, including labradors, golden retrievers, poodles, collies and beagles, are frequently employed in therapy work. These breeds were chosen for their ability to work well with children in educational settings and for their loving dispositions, intelligence, loyalty and obedience. These qualities are also necessary when offering emotional support to all primary school pupils, especially those with behavioural or learning difficulties.

According to studies, socialising with therapy dogs can help children in KS1 and KS2 feel less stressed and anxious and improve their self-esteem. Therefore, they are the perfect companions for people with special needs or impairments who might struggle to interact with others or feel overwhelmed by sizable crowds or noisy settings like playgrounds or classrooms. Moreover, therapy dogs have been shown to aid learners with unique educational difficulties, such as ADHD and autism, and increase their concentration levels. Both learners and teachers will benefit from the calmer atmosphere that a therapy dog may bring to the classroom. For instance, a study done at Nottingham Trent University indicated that pupils’ behaviour improved when a trained therapy dog was present. Disruptive behaviour considerably decreased during courses with a dog present compared to those without one.

In KS1 and KS2 primary education settings, there are multiple instances across the UK where the presence of therapy dogs, better known as “school dogs”, has improved learning outcomes. A well-known example is from Kingshill House School outside of London, where the headteacher decided to add two labradors to the school after observing that many pupils needed to react favourably to conventional methods of punishment or reward schemes like stickers or medals. Since then, she has witnessed incredible growth in her pupils, especially those who struggle academically, due to their strong bonds with their canine friends.

Having a school dog offers numerous advantages for pupils, contributing to their overall well-being and creating a positive and enriching educational environment. Here’s a detailed expansion on the mentioned benefits:

Enhanced Well-being and Reduced Anxiety
Companion animals, such as school dogs, play a pivotal role in improving the well-being of pupils. The daily interaction with dogs creates a happier and more enjoyable atmosphere, leading to lower anxiety levels among pupils.

Improved Behavior and Concentration
The positive impact of school dogs extends to improved behaviour and concentration among pupils. Interacting with dogs has been shown to reduce stress levels, contributing to better focus and engagement in classroom activities. This, in turn, enhances the overall learning experience.

Calmness and Anxiety Relief
Dogs in the school setting serve as natural soothers, capable of calming fears and relieving anxieties. The comforting existence of a dog can provide emotional support and create a safe space for pupils, creating a conducive learning environment.

Enhanced Self-esteem and Confidence
The companionship of dogs encourages expression, participation, and confidence among all pupils. The non-judgmental nature of dogs creates a supportive environment where children feel more comfortable expressing themselves, ultimately boosting self-esteem.

Cultivation of Responsibility
Having a school dog strengthens a sense of responsibility among pupils. Caring for the well-being of the dog, including feeding and ensuring exercise, instils valuable life skills related to accountability and empathy.

Motivation to Learn
The natural affinity that most children have for animals serves as a motivational tool for learning. Dogs in the school environment spark interest, enthusiasm, and enjoyment, motivating pupils to think critically and learn actively.

Nurturing and Respecting Life
School dogs play a role in teaching children about nurturing and respecting life. Understanding the needs of the dog and witnessing the impact of their care helps pupils develop empathy and a deeper appreciation for the value of all living beings.

Improved Attendance
The positive and engaging atmosphere created by a school dog can contribute to improved overall attendance. Pupils may be more eager to come to school, knowing that they will be greeted by a friendly and comforting companion.

Encouragement of Expression and Participation
School dogs contribute to creating an environment that encourages expression and participation. Pupils may feel more inclined to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns in the presence of a non-threatening and supportive canine companion.

Promotion of Respectful Relationships
The interaction with dogs promotes respect among pupils, improving their relationships with each other, parents, and teachers. Learning to interact respectfully with animals often translates into improved interpersonal skills and positive social behaviour.

Confidence in Reading
Dogs are known to be non-judgmental listeners. Incorporating them into reading activities creates a supportive environment where pupils can build confidence in their reading skills without the fear of criticism.

Support for Well-being Agenda
Having a school dog aligns with and further promotes the well-being agenda for both pupils and staff. The positive effects on mental health, emotional support, and the overall joy derived from dogs contribute to a holistic approach to well-being within the school community.

The “pet effect” theory, proven in studies, holds that having a school dog in the classroom can help children pay more attention in their lessons and maintain their concentration for extended periods. In light of this, having a school dog in the classroom might give them an additional tool for teaching or one-on-one time with children who require further support. Mabel at St Mary’s CofE Primary School in Warrington is one example of a successful project involving a school dog; she was introduced into classrooms across all primary year groups after evidence showed her calming presence had improved academic performance among children since she had been introduced.

Undoubtedly, including school dogs in primary education has many advantages. These animals offer comfort and company and serve as effective teaching tools for educating kids about responsibility and compassion while rewarding appropriate classroom behaviours. Additionally, research suggests that having a dog in the classroom increases pupil engagement during lessons while also being a helpful diversion from more complex tasks that might otherwise prove too difficult for some learners at first glance. As a result, dogs are invaluable additions to any educational institution’s arsenal against low performance among its learners. With all of this in mind, it is not surprising that so many nationwide primary schools have already started integrating school dogs into their classrooms. This trend is likely to continue for a very long time.

If you liked this article, you might want to read about why teachers are integrating yoga into the classroom and PE lessons.

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